Will Toronto police force finally be held accountable for its deadly history of violence toward Black people?
An Ontario Human Rights Commission inquiry has found that a Black person in Toronto is nearly 20 times more likely than a white person to be killed by police, but the department’s response has been marked by denial and diversion
Monday, December 10, was International Human Rights Day. The Ontario Human Rights Commission marked the day by releasing its interim report on an unprecedented “inquiry into racial profiling and racial discrimination of Black persons by the Toronto Police Service.”
The Commission rarely invokes its legal powers to conduct such an inquiry. And the Toronto Police Service (TPS) had not been the subject of a similar investigation before. The Commission uses its powers of inquiry only when it deems that matters of great public significance are involved. It is clear from the interim report that the treatment of members of the Black communities by Toronto police merited this investigation.
As OHRC Chief Commissioner Renu Mandhane wrote in an email to me, “Each person in Toronto, regardless of their race or the neighbourhood they live in, should be able to go about their daily life free from discrimination or harassment. The essence of freedom is being able to fulfill our full potential and contribute to society.”
For Mandhane, the conduct of the Toronto police toward Black people is “an affront” to their right to be free from discrimination or harassment. The interim report sets out a sorry history of largely negative interactions between police and members of Black communities.
A Collective Impact, as the report is entitled, examines three areas of contact between Black people and police between 2013 and 2017: stops, questioning and searches; use of force; and laying of charges. Its conclusions are based on analysis of data and reports obtained from TPS itself – which is a first – the province’s civilian-led police watchdog Special Investigations Unit (SIU), court decisions as well as findings of Ontario’s Independent Police Review Director and Ontario Human Rights Tribunal. The Commission also spoke directly to about 130 individuals from affected communities.
An important part of the report is a detailed race-based analysis by University of Toronto criminologist Scot Wortley of SIU investigations on incidents involving serious injuries and deaths. Since the SIU itself does not maintain race-based statistics, Wortley’s analysis is of great importance. It confirms “the long-standing concern of Black communities that they are overrepresented in incidents of serious injury and deadly force involving the TPS. It demonstrates that the more serious the police conduct and lethal the outcome, the greater the overrepresentation.”
The report reveals “serious use of force in interactions where there was a lack of legal basis for police stops and/or detentions of Black civilians in the first place, and inappropriate or unjustified searches of Black civilians.”
For example, during 2013-2017, “a Black person in Toronto was nearly 20 times more likely than a white person to be involved in a fatal [police] shooting,” writes Wortley.
Despite repeated claims by Toronto police of changes and improvements in interactions with Black communities, the picture is not much different when information from this period is compared to 2000-2006.
SIU reports, meanwhile, point to “broader concerns about officer misconduct, transparency and accountability.” Some police officers questioned by the unit, the report says, provided biased and untrustworthy testimony, inappropriately tried to stop the recording of incidents and failed to cooperate with the SIU.
Legal decisions also showed that racial profiling and illegal stops involving Black people continue to happen, with a blatant disregard for the law generally, and human rights and Charter rights, in particular. The examples cited in the report include one man tasered six times while handcuffed, and an individual on his way back from prayers being stopped, punched twice in the face, searched, handcuffed and left in the cold.
Between the two periods compared in the report, Toronto police and its board initiated a number of reviews and changes, developed new policies and strengthened police training in response to years of community protests and demands. This report leads one to ask if they have had any impact on how police deal with members of Black communities and to what extent the police culture is resistant to real change.
In that regard, the response to the Commission’s report from Chief Mark Saunders and the board, by way of a joint statement that was immediately praised by Mayor John Tory, does not offer much hope. The reaction by senior police brass and its civilian governors is a serious cause for concern.
Police response to outside scrutiny has almost always been marked by denial and diversion, lack of self-reflection and defense of the status quo. The statement is characterized by all of these. The message from the board’s willingness to subscribe to it can only be that the board has no intention of holding the police department accountable.
The statement starts by noting that “the report’s preliminary findings, as well as its recommendations, require a thoughtful and comprehensive response from us,” but qualifies it right away with the claim that this response will build on “the hard work we have been doing already to confront issues of systemic bias.”
That is followed by praise for Toronto police officers as “dedicated, professional and fair.”
TPS Board Chair Andy Pringle and Chief Saunders cannot seem to say enough about them. “They take pride in their role as officers of the law. They take pride in their service to our city… [W]e are equally proud of the courage and commitment shown by the women and men in uniform who work tirelessly to keep our city the best and safest place to be. We also recognize that the job of the police is a hard one.”
One may well wonder: what are the Ontario Human Rights Commission and the public complaining about? Further, what serious action can they expect from Saunders and Pringle and the men and women they lead?
They promise one action – to refer the Board’s policy on collection and reporting of demographic data to its Anti-Racism Advisory Panel, formed after the police shooting death of Andrew Loku, for review. The rest of the statement blames other social factors, presumably, as explanation for the behaviour of certain members of Black communities that results in over-policing.
Finally, it includes the clear message that, as former Chief Julian Fantino did with an earlier analysis of racial profiling, this Board and this Chief will also look for ways to impeach the inquiry’s findings.
“Some may raise questions about the approach, methodology and statistical basis of this report, and it is important that all of these issues be scrutinized to ensure the fullest and fairest analysis and accounting,” the statement reads.
As Valarie Steele, a long-term anti-racism advocate and a founding member of the Black Action Defense Committee said to me, “If, as the joint statement says, members of the Toronto Police Service are dedicated, professional and fair, then why are we talking about discriminatory practices and strong anti-Black racism? If Toronto police are dedicated, professional and fair and for 50-plus years, we in the Black community have been complaining about unfairness over policing, murder, brutality… then it is fair to say that Toronto Police Service is dedicated to ensuring that the Black community continues to distrust them.”
The Human Rights Commission has legal powers to enforce its findings. Given the police response, the Commission may well have to use them.